CoastLine: Author Willie Drye on the "Storm of the Century"

Dec 19, 2019

It's 1934, the middle of the Great Depression in America. The federal government sends hundreds of jobless World War I veterans to the Florida Keys for a work program. On its face, it's a great idea – pay these men to build a highway between Miami and Key West as part of a New Deal construction project. The men have jobs live in a mild climate and are out of public view, but the plan doesn't take into account a major hurricane.

In September of 1935 the Labor Day hurricane, the most powerful storm on record, explodes in the straits of Florida and makes landfall in the Keys with sustained winds at 184 miles per hour. Historians estimate the death toll from that storm to be about 260 veterans and more than 200 civilians, but how did it happen? Why were hundreds of veterans left to face a massive storm in the low lying keys with no shelter or means of escape?

It's a question that Willie Drye, author and journalist, set out to answer in his book, Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935. The book was first published in 2002 and a revised edition is out now. Willie Drye is also a contributing editor to National Geographic News.